- 09 Sep 20
Up De Flats is out now.
Singer, songwriter and producer Gemma Dunleavy is steadily making a name for herself as the Irish R&B artist to watch. Crossing the boundaries of genre, Dunleavy recently dropped her Up De Flats EP as a love letter to her Dublin 1 roots, proving tender and tough from its authentic beginning to end.
In her lockdown downtime, when she isn’t teaching her parrot tricks, Dunleavy is on the phone to An Board Pleanála to defend her community against yet more developments that harm those in her beloved postcode. Since the ‘80s and ‘90s, the struggle against these outside agents has been relentless.
“Lockdown happened in the first week of sessions for Up De Flats, and I’d planned for this record to be a re-creation of the community feeling that I was talking about in the songs,” Gemma says. “I normally make all of my songs in my bedroom by myself, but I wanted to invite other artists into the studio with me this time. I feel very precious about the direction of my songs, and don’t want too many hands because it’ll mess with the intention. I knew that no one else could tell these stories better me.”
The six-tracker explores multiple characters and perceived stereotypes from her Sheriff Street community, with the honey-toned vocalist pouring the realities and conversations of her childhood along with the constant de-humanisation of her area into powerful new music.
“I’ve always wanted to make an EP like this, where I had total clarity in myself for what I was saying,” the singer explains. “I had no idea that I would make such a personal release, but it just happened very organically. That I’ve made something so true to myself feels like I’ve climbed a huge hill.
“I basically just wanted to make an EP to celebrate my community, but as the concepts started to come together, I realised that I hoped the songs would inspire people to have a bit more empathy. It’s never a question of having compassion for the people in the songs, they’re my family and friends.”
Dunleavy is an active figure among the North Wall population, recently working on a documentary to highlight the area’s culture. The warmth of the community’s response to the EP emphasises the protectiveness of the culture.
“Showing the people the songs was daunting, but hearing everyone playing them has been amazing. I walked into my local shop the other day and there were three little kids singing ‘Up De Flats’ and it warmed my heart so much. Seeing people connect with ‘Setting Sun’ or ‘Stop The Lights’, and hearing phrases that every young fella in our area would say is brilliant,” Gemma adds.
Expressing an unrivalled bond with her roots, the street itself acts as a microcosm of an abandoned socio-economic group of Irish people and a muse for her soulful tracks.
“Heavy on my mind is the stuff that I sing about on the record. It’s a very sensitive thing to touch on the lives of others, and you want to make sure you get that right. I had to become a character. Flaws only make up five percent of the people on the record and the rest is that essence that makes up the community. I would take Sheriff Street any day with its imperfections.
“The mistreatment of my community is something that I’ve been experiencing my whole life, and I could never write about it until now,” Gemma adds. “There’s a new development going up, and it’s completely tearing my community apart. It’s been going on since the ‘80s and ‘90s, and now it’s happening again. I was eating, breathing, sleeping, the frustration of my community being meddled with. When you feel something so deeply and so passionately, it’s going to come out in the right way.”
Dublin City Council has begun a legal challenge against An Bord Pleanála for allowing Spencer Place Development Company to start building 13-storey residential blocks beside Sheriff Street, which adds complications to the area.
“They may as well have put a sign up in the local shop that says, ‘We’re going to fuck you up’, because that’s what the planning permission actually says to our community,” Gemma insists.
“The developers and politicians take advantage of people in our area, because they know that there are real, urgent problems going on in our sitting-room that are prioritised. We’re still suffering from the remnants of the heroin epidemic in the ‘90s. That didn’t go away when the appearance of it stopped littering the streets as much as it did back then. That’s why we never seek outside acceptance or help, because we know it doesn’t come.
“It’s not new to us, we’ve been abandoned since you had to put a different address on your CV to get a job,” Gemma adds. “It’s a real privilege to look into politics. These are real problems on your doorstep, you don’t get to even think about who’s left or right or who’s in Government or in power.”
Referencing the appropriation of working-class culture for the benefit of certain brands or artists, Dunleavy emphasises that a line needs to be drawn.
“It’s a slap in the face when a group of people go through harrowing life experiences and others use it for their art or as a trend, putting cracks in their work because they know it’ll draw people to it. People dress in a tracksuit and call themselves ‘chavs’, but you don’t get to just jump on that and then use the word ‘junkie’ to describe a drug addict.”
Growing up in an area ravaged by the ‘90s heroin epidemic, Gemma connects with her fellow North inner city artists in an undeniably special way.
“Michelle Byrne and Tara Kearns, wrote a collection of poems and paintings about growing up in a working class area called ADUANTAS. Michelle describes the traumas and the pain from the perspective of a little girl, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Those poems should be studied for the Leaving Cert to help with classism and open people’s minds.”
The music industry can often prove to be a closed-minded space, whether it comes to gender, race or class. When asked about the recent Gender Disparity Report into Irish radio airplay compiled by Linda Coogan Byrne and Aine Tyrrel, Gemma doesn’t express her surprise at the findings.
“I listen to the radio all the time and it’s the same blueprint we keep hearing. You can hear that there’s a particular type of song that a man in a suit who hasn’t a clue about music has chosen,” Dunleavy comments. “On FM104, there were zero female artists in their Top 20. I’m not going to put on stations that I feel are dismissive of it. I understand they need to give the customers what they want, but they have a responsibility to trickle in modern music and change the way things are.
“It also comes down to race,” Gemma continues. “I’m so grateful for the likes of 2fm’s Tara Stewart. Her show has such an interesting mix of Irish and international, R&B, hip-hop, rap and pop. As listeners, request songs by women and by your favourite Black or working-class artist. It will eventually make a difference.
“It’s not enough to say that they’re only playing what’s popular,” she concludes. “There is music out there being made by Irish women and diverse groups that deserves a place on the radio. Be the change.”